Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That Purple

This time of year in Central Missouri, fields, yards, waste spots, roadsides, gardens, and all manner of other landscapes can be flooded with that weird cobalt-violet-light that makes your retinas vibrate. It’s really quite magical how the tans, browns, grays, silvers of winter give way to this jazzy color. That special purple.

There are two plants that a lot of people confuse, and we have both of them blooming right now on our front terrace. Both are in the mint family, the Lamiaceae (if you took botany a long time ago, you learned it as the Labiatae, named for the labiate form that characterizes the family’s flowers—the petals are fused at their bases into a tube but have prominent upper and lower “lips”).

Both plants are weedy, branching herbs with square stems and little purple flowers.

First, there’s henbit, Lamium amplexicaule. The upper leaves seem to encircle the stem like a pretty little ruffled collar. I taught myself to remember the name for this by thinking of a frilly collar a farmwife might wear even as she was standing outside broadcasting feed for her chickens—henbit.

The other one is dead nettle, Lamium purpureum. Together, its leaves typically form an attractive, formal-looking pyramidal structure beneath the flowers. I taught myself to remember the name for this by thinking of the Egyptian pyramids—tombs—dead nettle.

So here are some pictures of henbit.
And here are some pictures of dead nettle.

I hope you’re having a good spring. It’s so nice to see these purple friends again, even if they’re supposed to be weeds.


JaneL said...

Thanks so much for the descriptions and illustrations of the distinctions. I know you've explained the differences to me before, but your pictures are much better than the ones in the guidebooks. I can clearly see the difference, and I have both in my yard too.

Julie said...

Thanks for the nice comment about the pictures. Thank goodness for autofocus! I would love to take a super closeup of just a single flower of one of these, because in terms of color and "feel," they seem very orchidlike. But yesterday it was too windy!